WASHINGTON — America’s “progressive” president has some peculiarly retro policies. Domestically, his reactionary liberalism is exemplified by his policy of No Auto Company Left Behind, with its intimated hope that depopulated Detroit, where cattle could graze, can somehow return to something like the 1950s. Abroad, he seems to yearn for the 1970s, when the Soviet Union was rampant and coping with it supposedly depended on arms control.
Actually, what was needed was not the chimera of arms control but Ronald Reagan’s renewal of the arms race that helped break the Soviet regime. The stately minuet of arms negotiations helped sustain U.S. public support for the parallel weapons spending.
Significant arms agreements are generally impossible until they are unimportant. Significant agreements are those that substantially alter an adversarial dynamic between rival powers. But arms agreements never do. During the Cold War, for example, arms negotiations were another arena of great power competition rather than an amelioration of that competition.
The Soviet Union was a third-world nation with first-world missiles. It had, as Russia still has, an essentially hunter-gatherer economy, based on extraction industries — oil, gas, minerals, furs. Other than vodka, for what manufactured good would you look to Russia? Caviar? It is extracted from the fish that manufacture it.
Today, in a world bristling with new threats, the president suggests addressing an old one — Russia’s nuclear arsenal. It remains potentially dangerous, particularly if a portion of it falls into nonstate hands. But what is the future of the backward and backsliding kleptocratic thugocracy that is Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
Putin — ignore the human Potemkin village (Dmitry Medvedev) who currently occupies the presidential office — must be amazed and amused that America’s president wants to treat Russia as a great power. Obama should instead study pertinent demographic trends.
Nicholas Eberstadt’s essay “Drunken Nation” in the current World Affairs quarterly notes that Russia is experiencing “a relentless, unremitting, and perhaps unstoppable depopulation.” Previous episodes of depopulation — 1917-23, 1933-34, 1941-46 — were the results of civil war, Stalin’s war on the “kulaks” and collectivization of agriculture, and World War II, respectively. But today’s depopulation is occurring in normal — for Russia — social and political circumstances. Normal conditions include a subreplacement fertility rate, sharply declining enrollment rates for primary school pupils, perhaps more than 7 percent of children abandoned by their parents to orphanages or government care or life as “street children.” Furthermore, “mind-numbing, stupefying binge drinking of hard spirits” — including poisonously impure home brews — “is an accepted norm in Russia and greatly increases the danger of fatal injury through falls, traffic accidents, violent confrontations, homicide, suicide, and so on.” Male life expectancy is lower under Putin than it was a half-century ago under Khrushchev.
Martin Walker of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, writing in The Wilson Quarterly (“The World’s New Numbers”), notes that Russia’s declining fertility is magnified by “a phenomenon so extreme that it has given rise to an ominous new term — hypermortality.” Because of rampant HIV/AIDS, extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) and alcoholism, and the deteriorating health care system, a U.N. report says “mortality in Russia is three to five times higher for men and twice as high for women” than in other countries at a comparable stage of development. The report, Walker says, “predicts that within little more than a decade the working-age population will be shrinking by up to 1 million people annually.” Be that as it may, “Russia is suffering a demographic decline on a scale that is normally associated with the effects of a major war.”
According to projections by the United Nations Population Division, Russia’s population, which was around 143 million four years ago, might be as high as 136 million or as low as 121 million in 2025, and as low as 115 million in 2030.
Marx envisioned the “withering away” of the state under mature communism. Instead, Eberstadt writes, the world may be witnessing the withering away of Russia, where Marxism was supposed to be the future that works. Russia, he writes, “has pioneered a unique new profile of mass debilitation and foreshortened life previously unknown in all of human history.”
“History,” he concludes, “offers no examples of a society that has demonstrated sustained material advance in the face of long-term population decline.” Demography is not by itself destiny, but it is more real than an arms control “process” that merely expresses the liberal hope of taming the world by wrapping it snugly in parchment.
George Will is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.